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‘To run away is to humiliate yourself’ Former Moscow lawmaker Yulia Galyamina on what it will take to build a democratic Russia

Source: Meduza
Denis Kaminev

As the war in Ukraine has raged on, the Russian authorities haven’t let up on their quest to stamp out what’s left of the country’s domestic opposition. In just the last month, Moscow municipal deputy Alexey Gorinov has been sentenced to seven years in prison for calling the war in Ukraine a war; Helga Pirogova, a municipal deputy from Novosibirsk, has been forced to leave the country under threat of criminal prosecution, and Moscow opposition figure Ilya Yashin has been sent to jail on criminal charges of spreading “fake news” for speaking truthfully about Russian atrocities against civilians in Bucha. For insight into where Russia’s democratic opposition went wrong — and what it needs to do now — Meduza turned to activist and former Moscow deputy Yulia Galyamina.

In December 2020, when Yulia Galyamina faced criminal charges in court for her involvement in protests against Russia's constitutional amendments, she used her final statement to address the public. “I, unlike my persecutors, offer all of us a future,” said Galyamina. “I am proposing a future in which each person in our country, wherever they live, would be able to live with dignity: earn decent money, buy good food and clothes, travel, heal their relatives, and teach their children.”

A year and a half later, a lot of things haven't changed. Galyamina, who is on probation, has lost her position as a lecturer at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, but she’s still thinking about how to give Russians a dignified future. Meanwhile, the authorities who targeted her for protesting have launched a war of aggression against Ukraine, ultimately limiting the Russian citizenry’s access to the global economy, kneecapping the healthcare system, and censoring the country’s educators.

Galyamina makes no bones about the fact that she censors herself, too; it’s a necessary part of remaining in the country. “I realize that that's one of the cons of being in Russia, but there are quite a few people who have left and who are now writing freely. That means people [inside Russia] do have information,” she told Meduza.

The fact that she’s on probation, and thus wouldn’t be able to return to Russia if she left, is a large part of why she hasn’t fled, but it’s not the whole reason.

“I believe that when you’re in politics, it’s very important to remain in-country,” she said. “Otherwise, it stops being politics. Those are my public considerations. And here are my private considerations: I wouldn’t be happy anywhere else.”

In recent months, Galyamina has watched a number of her colleagues face what she faced less than two years ago: politically-motivated criminal charges. At the arraignment trial of Moscow municipal deputy Alexey Gorinov, who was charged with spreading “false information” about the Russian military earlier this month, Galyamina says she felt powerless.

russia's wartime crackdown

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin is still in Russia and still speaking out So far, he’s stayed out of prison

russia's wartime crackdown

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin is still in Russia and still speaking out So far, he’s stayed out of prison

“It’s really hard to look at someone as he’s being sentenced to so much jail time,” she said. “[...] On the other hand, I realize he made the decision himself; we shouldn’t make him into a victim. He was prepared to go to prison. He didn’t run from it. He made a choice for himself. Because if you run, you ruin everything you’ve done up to that point and become a political émigré. To run away is to humiliate yourself.”

Galyamina said she's fully aware that at any moment, the authorities could come after her, too, and give her a more severe sentence than the probation she’s currently serving. But that doesn’t mean she’s afraid.

“Fear is a result of the unknown. I more or less understand how things work and what it is that’s threatening me. I don’t want to test it, of course — especially not with my health, because I’m not the healthiest person. But there’s no point in being afraid,” she said.

‘We made no attempt to understand people’

Galyamina believes she knows how Russia got to its current crisis point. In the early nineties, she said, she and a lot of other young Russians became politically active to an unprecedented degree. Then, at the climax of Russia’s 1993 constitutional crisis, President Boris Yeltsin shelled Russia's White House after the parliamentarians inside threatened to impeach him.

“I said to myself, ‘Well, to hell with him — I’m done. I’m going to pursue science or something else useful and get on with my life,’” said Galyamina. “[...] Since 1993, the entire [Russian political] system has been built for the purpose [of cutting people out of politics]. The most important task right now is to get people involved in the process.”

And when Galyamina speaks of getting people involved in politics, she doesn’t just mean civic education campaigns. She envisions rebuilding Russia’s political system from the ground up in a way that gives people from a cross section of society an active role in the process. As a model, she proposes the proposed new constitution of Chile.

“It was developed in part by Adam Kahane, an economist and the author of the book Collaborating with the Enemy. To create a post-Pinochet constitution, his team recruited 80,000 people to take part in discussing the text. And they were random people — people from various social statuses, with various beliefs, from different walks of life,” she said.

When accused of idealism, Galyamina is succinct: “In my view, only idealists change the world, because pragmatists just go with the flow.”

russia's opposition in exile

‘I can’t make peace with leaving’ Novosibirsk opposition politician Helga Pirogova on openly supporting Ukraine and being forced to flee Russia

russia's opposition in exile

‘I can’t make peace with leaving’ Novosibirsk opposition politician Helga Pirogova on openly supporting Ukraine and being forced to flee Russia

When Galyamina was being taken to jail after attempting to organize an anti-war protest, she had a conversation with her driver that stuck with her.

“The driver — who supports the government, of course, there’s no doubt about that — told me the most important thing for him is that his children grow up in a stable environment and stay healthy,” she said. “[...] So we know that the man wants to be needed, wants to have a decent family, and wants to be proud of his country and his work. And that’s an ordinary human desire that’s hard to bring about properly right now.”

Galyamina believes that when building government institutions, it’s essential not to lose sight of the fact that the value of democracy comes from its potential to improve people’s quality of life. “My idea — though I don’t know if it will be used, because I’m not working alone on this project — is to build a model based not on larger concepts but on the lives of specific families in specific populations,” she said.

From her perspective, the Kremlin isn’t the only party responsible for the decline of Russian democracy. Her own circles had a role to play as well.

“We made no attempt to understand people. [...] It wasn’t until 2017 that [the opposition] got involved in local politics and municipal elections. That means we lost 10 years shouting about how bad Putin is. But people liked Putin, so we should have been talking about something else. We should have been building alternatives,” she said.

And though Galyamina said she’s not ready to condemn all of the Russians who have fled the country, she does think they made a mistake.

“I think it’s irresponsible behavior. It’s amazing how the people who left are the ones speaking most loudly about collective guilt and collective responsibility, but they simultaneously absolve themselves of responsibility. [...] Sometimes I think, what if the Ukrainians ran away like Russians have? ‘Oh, it’s horrible! It’s too scary!’ People need to have courage.”

Interview by Svetlana Reiter

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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